“Mr Speaker, industrial action by striking French workers yesterday caused significant disruption at the ports of Calais and Coquelles in northern France. This action resulted from a dispute between local trade unions and the owners of the French ferry operator, MyFerryLink. As a result of this disruptive strike, the port of Calais was shut for a period of over 13 hours and train departures were suspended at the Channel Tunnel rail port of Coquelles. Sadly, the strikers damaged SNCF railway tracks outside the tunnel, which led to the cancellation of all Eurostar services until 6 o’clock this morning. More generally, the disruption caused backlogs of traffic in the Calais area, which presented existing migrants around the town with opportunities to attempt to enter slow-moving lorries.
The French and UK Governments were well prepared for this event. Tried and tested contingency plans were quickly put into place. Despite the extra pressure caused by the French strikers, Border Force maintained border security by following plans to put additional staff in place to search freight vehicles passing through the affected ports during the industrial action and thereafter. All freight vehicles passing through the Calais ports undergo searching by both the French authorities and the UK’s Border Force before boarding a ferry or train. During the course of yesterday’s disruption and since, the Border Force and the French authorities have successfully identified and intercepted a significant number of would-be migrants.
Last night, I spoke with the French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve. He was as grateful as I was for the strong co-operation between UK and French authorities during yesterday’s incident, and I thanked him for the French police’s efforts to maintain law and order in the Calais area. Our two Governments have been working closely and constructively in recent months to bolster security at the juxtaposed border at Calais and other French ports. Last September, Her Majesty’s Government committed £12 million to this work. This has led to the installation of fencing around the port of Calais and the approach road and improvements to the layout of the port to speed up flows of traffic and create secure buffer zones for heavy goods vehicles. This is in addition to £3 million spent on the provision of new scanners and detection technology to assist with the searching of freight vehicles and additional dog searching undertaken by contractors. At the port of Coquelles, we have already provided significant investment in upgrading perimeter security and freight-screening technology. We will continue to work with Eurotunnel and the French authorities on installing additional security measures at the site to prevent migrants from making incursions into the port.
More broadly, the ongoing situation in Calais serves as an important reminder of why EU member states need to work together to tackle the causes of illegal immigration in source and transit countries. We are already co-operating closely with the French to tackle the organised criminal gangs that facilitate the movement of migrants into and across Europe. UK and French law enforcement organisations have already had considerable success in dismantling criminal networks behind people trafficking and smuggling on both sides of the channel, resulting in the prosecution of 223 individuals, and Monsieur Cazeneuve and I have agreed to build on this important work. As the Prime Minister and I have repeatedly made clear, the most important step to resolving the situation in the Mediterranean is breaking the link between migrants making this dangerous journey and achieving settlement in Europe.
Traffic on both sides of the channel is moving again. There will, however, continue to be a significant border security operation as the backlogs of traffic are cleared at the affected ports. The inconvenience caused by the French strikers to the travelling public and lorry drivers is deeply regrettable. Though yesterday’s incident was caused by events that were beyond the control of Her Majesty’s Government, our law enforcement organisations reacted to the events extremely well. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in commending the excellent work done by the Border Force, Kent Police and others on both sides of the channel who have worked tirelessly to maintain border security and minimise disruption to the travelling public. I commend this Statement to the House”.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer. The situation at Calais has, over time, reflected the humanitarian crisis and the activities of human traffickers, which are both issues that need to be addressed at source. Co-operation between the French and British authorities in their work is to be welcomed, but on the issue of the events of the last day or so, could the Minister say what specific action has been taken to protect British citizens delayed in northern France in the light of reports alleging harassment and threats to car and lorry drivers waiting to travel back to this country—also implied in the Answer—and reports that some hauliers no longer use Calais?
The Answer also referred to the interception of a number of would-be migrants by Border Force and the French authorities. What is the Government’s current estimate of the number of would-be migrants who are likely to reach this country as a result of the recent disruption in northern France, and how does that figure compare with the estimated usual number of would-be migrants thought to reach this country through the ports of Calais and Coquelles over a similar period?
To answer the first question, the Home Secretary has spoken to Monsieur Cazeneuve about the safety of British and other travellers travelling to the UK. There is a promise to provide extra resources during this time to help secure vehicles. It is a very fast-moving and difficult situation, as has already been mentioned.
As to the effect on the number of people arriving into the UK, the juxtaposed controls, which are at the heart of this and were actually introduced by the previous Labour Government, have worked very well in Calais, Dunkirk and Coquelles. They are staffed by a pool of about 800 Border Force officers based in France. It is estimated that, in the past year, 40,000 people have been stopped travelling into the UK. The message to take from yesterday is very clear: the UK border was not breached. There was significant disruption for travellers and freight vehicles as a result of the action, particularly for those using the tunnel, but we do not anticipate that having a direct effect on the numbers entering the UK.
My Lords, the problems we saw in Calais yesterday did not begin with the strike; they began with the plight of people many miles away in Africa. Will the Government continue to support spending 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid, as provided for under the Act that was proposed by the Liberal Democrats as a Private Member’s Bill and passed by this House in the last Session, to ensure that the reasons these people are seeking to move from Africa into Europe are dealt with at source?
I am very happy to give that assurance. Reaching 0.7% was one of the great achievements of the previous Government and certainly something that we are committed to maintaining. We are providing the second-largest amount of money, in absolute terms, to Syria—some £800 million. We talk about committing £12 million to the work at the juxtaposed borders, but £800 million is going towards helping the people fleeing the awful situation in Syria. That is absolutely the right balance in trying to move this problem forward and tackle it at source.
My Lords, I was one of those trapped in a car just outside the terminal at Calais yesterday, together with a very large number of lorries and their drivers. The road was thick with would-be migrants to this country. I did not feel at all threatened by them—they seemed to be relatively benevolent. But I had great sympathy for the lorry drivers, who were faced with attempts to break into their lorries. I also had great sympathy for this large army of would-be migrants. What steps are being taken to find a permanent solution for their plight?
The juxtaposed controls were introduced in response to the situation at the Sangatte camp. Some interesting things are going on at an international and even a European level—for example, the idea of trying to create secure areas within north Africa where people could be safely returned to and where their applications, if they were genuine, could be processed and tested. We should certainly look more closely at an idea of that kind.
My Lords, in the event of the Italian authorities giving temporary residency to boat people coming in from north Africa and landing on Italian shores, what would the position be at Calais? Would be we able turn those people back?
There is an issue in relation to Italy. We would like to see the Italian authorities recognise that they have a major crisis on their hands and take care to ensure that, when people arrive in Italy, they are fingerprinted, registered and recorded as the Dublin regulations require. Her Majesty’s Government’s position is that, if that were to happen in Italy, it would reduce the flows heading north beyond that area.
That is what the Dublin accord or regulation requires: such people should claim asylum in the first place in which they arrive. If it is Italy, it should be Italy; if it is Greece, then it should be Greece. That is a principle which everybody has signed up to and we want to see it implemented.
There could be a whole range of reasons. I am proud of this country; it is a wonderful country; it is a privilege to live here. I have no doubt that many people would want to come here. The point is that we cannot have an open-door policy; we need to have a managed immigration policy for people who have gone through the proper channels to arrive here. People who try to circumvent that clearly need to be stopped.
Following on from the previous question, has my noble friend noticed the comments by Mr Vaz, the chairman of the relevant committee in another place, who said that the attraction of this country is not simply the benefits system but the fact that illegal immigrants are able to obtain employment?
I do not want to stray into what might be considered a partisan point, but when a country has created 2.2 million jobs while there is still a high level of unemployment in the EU, particularly in France, that will clearly be in the minds of people who are making economic decisions. Economic migrants should be returned—that is not what we are looking for. If people are genuinely fleeing for their lives and for asylum purposes, their applications need to be considered in the proper way.
I tried to give one; I accept that it might not have been adequate. I was simply making the point that we would prefer the boat people to be recorded and registered in Italy, as is specified under the Dublin regulations.